I don’t know how many articles I’ve seen exploring why Trump got elected. Most focus on what the democrats did wrong. Either Clinton herself, her team, or her supporters. Some focus on changes in the electorate, especially in the places that Obama won but Clinton lost. Others focus on the fact that Clinton did a bad job articulating why she should be president. Some blame the FBI, the DNC, Assange, Russia, and Facebook. So far, I haven’t seen any articles focusing on what Trump did right. Obviously, he did some things right. Clinton didn’t just lose, he actively won. This is massively confusing to nearly every pundit and commentator I’ve seen, because his candidacy seemed to break every rule that every other winner has followed.
In order to explore how Trump won we need to look more closely at how the human brain works. Let’s try a little thought experiment. Think of the answer to this question: did Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star? Ignoring the tiny part of the world that hasn’t yet seen Star Wars, just about everyone should have immediately answered yes. The problem is that Luke Skywalker doesn’t exist. The Death Star doesn’t exist. Neither of them ever existed. The fact that these things are pure fiction is a separate fact than exactly what the relationship between the two of them are. So in my question you might see three relevant facts. Luke Skywalker exists, the Death Star exists, and the former blew up the latter. But a separate fact, so obvious you didn’t even think about it, contradicts the first three. It is entirely possible, even easy, to completely forget the fourth fact and just focus on the first three. The point that I’m slowly arriving at is that humans are terrible at telling fact from fiction.
When you hear a fact that idea gets lodged in your brain as a memory. Whether or not the fact is true gets lodged as a separate memory. In the case of pure fiction, such as Star Wars, this doesn’t really matter. Even people who take Star Wars really seriously don’t push their views on others. But most of the world doesn’t neatly fit into such neat boxes of fact and fiction. When Trump draws our attention to the fact that there are illegal immigrants in the US we all understand that is true. And when he connects that fact to the idea that this is a major problem, it gets tricky on how to classify that. It isn’t immediately clear as to whether or not this is a good or a bad thing. Does having a large class of people in a legal grey area help or hurt the economy? It isn’t easy to say. When Trump says that unemployment is a problem in some parts of the country we all know he’s right. But when he says that he can fix it by bringing back coal production suddenly things get muddy. Sure, some will get jobs mining the coal. But who will buy it now? How many jobs will emerge? It gets unclear in our minds. Trump exploits that opacity and appeals to simplicity.
Trump has done that again and again and again. He oversimplifies and hides inconvenient facts. He may be better at that than anyone else who has ever run for president. This makes him a powerful campaigner. He appeals to the part of all of us that want a nice, simple solution. I think people vastly underestimated the power of this approach. The world is a complicated place, and having someone tell us that it’s actually simple is a useful technique. Advertising has used it for years. And advertisers use it because it works.
P.S. I also want to mention why no other presidential candidates have used these techniques to such an extreme before. The world is not simple. All the things that the president influences such as diplomacy, the economy, culture, and historical trends are wildly complicated. Anyone with any political experience understands that through and through. It isn’t at all clear Trump realizes this. He may actually believe his own propaganda.